Christopher Nolan's complicated history with Warner Bros. may have gifted us 'Barbenheimer'

Cillian Murphy in a scene from "Oppenheimer" where Oppenheimer is seen waving his hat at a crowd of people while an American flag waves behind him.
Cillian Murphy in "Oppenheimer."Universal
  • "Oppenheimer" and "Barbie" are both set to be released on July 21.

  • Nolan's complicated history with Warner Bros., the studio behind "Barbie," could be responsible.

  • Sources said he was upset the studio wanted to release "Barbie" the same weekend as "Oppenheimer."

On the surface, the release of "Oppenheimer" and "Barbie" on the same weekend seems to be because of an overcrowded summer movie season, resulting in a playful box-office battle that the internet has dubbed "Barbenheimer."

The reality, though, is a little more complicated and may have something to do with the recent skirmish between the "Oppenheimer" director, Christopher Nolan, and Warner Bros., the studio releasing "Barbie."

For most of his career, Nolan released his movies through Warner Bros. Starting with 2002's "Insomnia," the studio released some of his most beloved titles like "Inception," "Dunkirk," and his "Dark Knight" trilogy.

But that changed soon after the studio released his 2020 film, "Tenet," exclusively in theaters during the height of the pandemic. When the studio's parent company, WarnerMedia, made the shocking decision in late 2020 to release its 2021 slate exclusively on its streaming service, HBO Max, Nolan lambasted the move.

"Some of our industry's biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service," Nolan said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter in December 2020.

Then, in September 2021, Deadline reported that Nolan would be making his next movie about the atomic-bomb creator, J. Robert Oppenheimer, at Universal.

As theatrical-release dates began to fill the 2023 calendar, "Oppenheimer" was scheduled for July 21 — not a surprise, given that mid-July has been Nolan's preferred-release week for his films since 2008's "The Dark Knight (save for "Interstellar," which opened in November; "Tenet" would have also opened in mid-July if it weren't for the pandemic).

But a new title also showed up on that date: the "Barbie" movie Warner Bros has been developing for years.

Was this a coincidence, or was this Warner Bros. enacting some form of payback on Nolan? Would Warner Bros. be so petty that it would purposely attempt to undercut the auteur that used to be a star in its stable?

I had to ask Nolan himself.

Christopher Nolan speaking into a microphone while wearing a in a suit and tie.
Christopher Nolan.Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty

Sources said Nolan was upset that "Barbie" was scheduled for release on the same weekend as "Oppenheimer"

"Have you seen 'Barbie' yet?" I asked Nolan at a press event for "Oppenheimer."

"No," he said. It was a curt response with a hint of disinterest.

I told him my theory that "Barbenheimer" was born through his complex history with Warner Bros.

"Now, you must know I'm not going to answer that question," he said with a chuckle, "only to say those who care about the theatrical experience, we've been longing for a crowded marketplace with a lot of different movies. That's what theaters have now, and those of us who care about movies are thrilled about that."

A screenshot from the "Barbie" trailer where Margot Robbie is looking into a pink mirror while standing in a pink apartment which looks out over a tropical-looking landscape with palm trees and mountains.
Margot Robbie in "Barbie."Warner Bros. Pictures

Four sources familiar with the matter said Nolan wasn't nearly as diplomatic in his stance behind the scenes. The sources — who didn't authorize Insider to use their names as they didn't have the authority to speak on the matter publicly — told Insider that Nolan was upset that Warner Bros. scheduled "Barbie" for release on the same weekend as "Oppenheimer," especially since mid-July has been known in the movie business as "Nolan's weekend" for years.

There was even an attempt by the movie-theater community, in which Nolan is beloved, to convince Warner Bros. to move the release date of "Barbie." But two of the sources said the studio wouldn't budge. Insider contacted Warner Bros. for comment on this story but did not receive a response.

The showdown between "Oppenheimer" and "Barbie" is rare because studios typically want to keep their big releases away from other major titles because opening on the same weekend can result in fewer box-office dollars for both.

But clearly, Warner Bros. feels "Barbie" is up for the challenge. The studio has blitzed the public with promotion for months: First came the on-set shots of Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken dressed in matching roller-blading outfits. Then came the instantly memed character posters, stories about "pink days" on set, and news of the film contributing to an international shortage of pink paint.

Meanwhile, Universal has stayed surprisingly quiet about "Oppenheimer." Outside of revealing a countdown clock and ominous trailers featuring the film's star, Cillian Murphy, there hasn't been much information about the movie — and most people are shocked when I tell them Florence Pugh is in it.

Awareness is set to increase soon — Universal held a press junket for "Oppenheimer" in New York City this past weekend — but is it too late? Early box-office forecasts said that "Barbie" would earn about $80 million in its first three days and that "Oppenheimer" would take in only $40 million.

Now here's the crazy part: Warner Bros. wants Nolan back!

Despite all this, don't be surprised if Nolan returns to Warner Bros.

Cillian Murphy in a scene from "Oppenheimer" where Oppenheimer is seen wearing a set of googles and looking through a porthole while a bright light illuminates his face.

In June, Variety reported that the new heads of Warner Bros., Michael De Luca and Pam Abdy, want Nolan to return. The magazine reported that they sent the director a seven-figure royalty check for "Tenet" in an attempt to extend an olive branch.

On top of all that, I've been told by a source that Nolan and Emma Thomas, his wife who is also his producing partner, still have an office on the studio lot.

After all this, could Nolan really go back to Warner Bros.? Some sources tell me a decision to return would be less about "Barbenheimer" and more about the respect Nolan and Thomas have for De Luca and Abdy.

But the Universal head Donna Langley isn't going to give up Nolan without a fight, either. Insider contacted Universal for comment on this story but did not receive a response.

As many moviegoers happily plan a "Barbenheimer" double feature (I suggest seeing the intense, three-hour "Oppenheimer" first, and then finishing with the fun "Barbie"), Nolan will have to begin soul-searching to decide his best path forward.

And if recent history has taught us anything, we shouldn't be shocked by decisions made in Hollywood. If Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel can work together again, don't be surprised if Nolan and Warner Bros. patch things up, too.

Correction: July 12, 2023 — An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of a cochairperson and co-CEO of Warner Bros. Motion Picture Group. It's Pam Abdy.

Read the original article on Insider